Iraqi prelate weighs threat to Christian community of US-Iran confrontation

THE ARCHBISHOP OF ERBIL, Kurdistan, Iraq—where a US military base was hit by an Iranian missile Jan. 7, 2020—expressed a measure of relief at President Trump’s statement the following day that “Iran appears to be standing down.” However, Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Warda expressed concern that Iraq is at risk of becoming the setting for further clashes between the two nations. “We do not want to live in fear and anxiety,” he told Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). “Peace and harmony” in Iraq, he said, are key for “the survival of Christianity in the country.”

On Jan. 7, Iran also fired as many as 15 ballistic missiles at an Iraqi air base that houses US troops. The attacks came in retaliation for the Jan. 3 US drone strike near the Baghdad airport that killed Iran’s top military leader, Qasem Soleimani, head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ elite Quds Force.

Archbishop Warda

There were no casualties at either military base, reported President Trump, who announced that additional sanctions, as yet unspecified, would be imposed on Iran in response to the strikes. However, the President declared the US is prepared “to embrace peace,” even as heated rhetoric from the Iranian leadership hinted at further attacks.

In a formal statement sent to ACN, Archbishop Warda said that the confrontation “between the two powers must not escalate.” He added that “Iraq has been suffering from proxy wars for decades; they have torn our country apart.” Ongoing conflicts have had a disproportionate impact on Iraqi Christians and other minorities, who were often caught between warring factions or directly targeted, as in the ISIS genocidal campaign killing Christians and Yazidis.

The archbishop said that “the current tensions are threatening the serious fragility of the communities, which are tired of war and the tragic consequences of it. They have continually suffered far too much and can no longer face an unknown future.” He added that these vulnerable communities, beset by “fears and anxieties, … need the certainty, reassurance, hope and the belief that Iraq can be a peaceful country to live in rather than being victims and endless collateral damage.”

“In the past decade, in particular since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, supporting the Christian communities of the Middle East has been a primary concern for Aid to the Church in Need,” said Edward Clancy, director of outreach for ACNUSA. Over this period, ACN has provided more than $100M in humanitarian and other essential support to Christians in Iraq and Syria alone. Ongoing support is vitally important for preserving the Christian presence in the region. “In Iraq alone, by some estimates, the number of Christians has fallen by 90 percent since 2003, when the US invaded Iraq,” said Clancy. There are perhaps as few as 150,000 Christians left in the country.

“We hope that, whatever happens next, Western powers do their utmost to ensure the protection of the Christians in the Middle East,” said Clancy. Archbishop Warda concluded his statement by asking for “the urgent action of the international community to use their influence to diffuse the tensions. Our prayer is for peace and dialogue resulting in a just outcome.”

—Joop Koopman